For the upcoming September Conference in Warsaw What has happened since the February 2019 summit

The challenge of sexual abuse

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27 August 2021

In February 2019, Pope Francis invited the presidents of every episcopal conference to the Vatican for a Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church to address the issue of the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy. A similar meeting focusing on the region of Central and Eastern Europe will take place in Warsaw from September 19-22. In this article, Fr Federico Lombardi puts this regional meeting into the context of the Church’s journey thus far.

The Church must confront the challenges present in today’s world, the most fundamental being the faith and the proclamation of the God of Jesus Christ, with all the grandiose cultural and anthropological transformations present. There are also specific challenges, however, that profoundly influence the life of the Church and its evangelizing mission. One of the most critical challenges that has emerged in the last few decades, is that of the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy. This has undermined the Church’s credibility and, therefore, its authority and its capacity of proclaiming the Gospel credibly. It has cast the shadow of inconsistency and insincerity over the Church as an institution, and on the entire community of the Church as a whole. This is indeed extremely serious.

Over time and with experience, beginning with the sexual abuse of minors — which is the most serious — we have learned to broaden the perspective to include various aspects. Thus, today, we often speak of abuse suffered by “vulnerable” persons. And we know the abuses sustained are not only sexual, but also abuse of power and conscience, as Pope Francis has often stated.

In addition, it is necessary to remember that the problem of abuse, in its various manifestations, is a general problem in human society, in the countries we live in and on the various continents. It is not a problem exclusive to the Catholic Church. Rather, those who study the issue objectively and as a whole, have seen that there are different regions, places, and institutions where it is dramatically widespread.

At the same time, it is only right that the Church look specifically at the problem since, as has already been noted, its credibility and constancy is at stake. The Church has always insisted on its teaching regarding sexual behavior and respect for the human person. Therefore, even if we know that this is not a problem that exists exclusively in the Church, we must be absolutely serious about it and understand that it has a terrible impact in the context of ecclesial life and on the proclamation of the Lord’s Gospel.

In particular, what is at stake is the depth and truth of relationships between people whose dignity is to be profoundly respected. As Christians and as Catholics, we pride ourselves on recognizing the primacy of the dignity of the person who is the image of God. So, the abuse of a person, the lack of respect, considering others as objects, not being attentive to their sufferings, and so on, is a sign that something specific and fundamental is missing in our faith and in our vision of the world.

In the latest reform of the Church’s penal code, there is an aspect that might seem purely formal, but is instead very significant from this point of view. The crimes of sexual abuse were inserted under the heading of offences “against human life, dignity and liberty”. They are not “scandalous” actions or deeds considered “unworthy of the clergy”. Rather, the emphasis is placed on the Church’s understanding that the dignity of the person is central and must be respected as and because we are the image of God. This is absolutely fundamental. The fact that a conversion is taking place and we have begun to more seriously listen to and respect each individual person, even the smallest and weakest, is one of the most important steps on the journey in our time toward the conversion and purification of the Church to regain its credibility.

The 2019 Meeting: responsibility, accountability, transparency

Without going through the entire history of the tragic events and the Church’s response regarding the sexual abuse of minors, we can, for simplicity’s sake, begin with the February 2019 Meeting. It was convened by the Pope as a global moment, in which the entire Church (represented by members of every Episcopal Conference, in which representatives of institutes of consecrated men and women also participated), gathered together to become aware of and dedicate itself to continue to more effectively embrace the path of renewal.

The organization of that Meeting revolved around three main points (the Acts were subsequently published in the book published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana entitled Consapevolezza e purificazione Awareness and Purification).

First of all, becoming aware of and embracing responsibility for the problem and the issues connected to the sexual abuse of minors and others; the importance of profound and compassionate listening and understanding, which leads to the openness to participate in the consequences, the suffering, the seriousness of what has happened and is happening. Listening and compassion as the starting point in forming the conviction that needs to be adopted. Then, of course, there is the need for justice to be done for crimes that have harmed others. Another aspect is that of prevention so that such crimes never be committed again, or at least, that becoming more and more rare, this tragic reality can be controlled. This implies the formation of all who work within the ecclesial community, and specifically, the formation of competent people who can act as reference points for dealing with the problem. In short, awareness and responsibility in facing the issue go together.

Another very important and crucial point is accountability so as to overturn the culture of covering up or concealing the problem. One of the tragic aspects of this crisis is that it has brought a serious situation to the surface, to the awareness of the public (even though at times people knew what was happening) — a way of dealing with the sexual abuse of minors that had become systemic, often interpreted as “natural”, kept in the shadows or swept under the carpet, due to embarrassment or to defend the honour of the families or the institutions involved, and so on. This tendency to hide the issue needs to be replaced by the tendency to be accountable for what has been done, even by those in leadership roles. This tendency to cover up abuse was so widespread at every level, even more serious when done by those in positions of responsibility (superiors of communities, bishops, etc.). Thus, bringing things to the light and making sure that everyone is accountable for their actions is a way to make sure that we are moving toward transparency, responsibility and justice — another absolutely necessary step forward in the process.

The third point that was talked a lot about during the Meeting was transparency, which is a consequence of the first two. This does not only mean admitting that crimes were and still are being committed, talking about them and focusing on them. Certainly, facing the truth of the facts is essential. But transparency also means knowing and making known what is being done in response, what the procedures are by which the Church, in all of its manifestations, is facing and dealing with the issue, what measures it is taking, what the verdicts are regarding the guilty parties, and so forth. In this way, both the ecclesial and civil community becomes aware not only of the faults and crimes committed, but also of the journey the community is consciously engaged in and by which it is responding to this problem.

Important steps taken since the 2019 Meeting

But if the Meeting in 2019 was supposed to be a common point of departure, it needs to be recognized that subsequently many steps were taken by the Pope and Church leadership that implemented all of the main tasks identified during that Meeting. What are they?

Firstly, already by the end of March, Pope Francis had issued an Apostolic Letter promulgating new laws and guidelines pertaining to the Vatican and the Holy See which broadened the perspective beyond the abuse of minors to include “vulnerable persons”. Then on 9 May 2019, he promulgated a very important new law for the entire Church, the Motu Proprio Vos estis lux mundi — “You are the light of the world” — in which the Pope legislated that an office be organized in every diocese to receive reports and to initiate the canonical procedures in response to the sexual abuse of minors. In addition, he also established that every priest and religious who becomes aware of such abuse is obliged to report it. The Pope also extended an invitation to members of the laity to report such abuse as well. Now, all priests and men and women religious are obliged in conscience to report cases regarding the sexual abuse of minors that they are made aware of; this obligation applies not only to minors, being the most serious, but applies also to other vulnerable persons or other abuses that include the use of violence. Once again, members of the laity are also invited to do so. In order to report abuse, the offices established to receive the reports must be publicized.

This is one of the most decisive steps. Of course, it needs to be ascertained whether all of this is being implemented. However, the law is already in place for the entire Church. It is an absolutely fundamental step the Pope took, probably the most important in the last twenty years regarding this issue. Furthermore, the same law instituted a process that involves the reporting of superiors at the highest levels — superiors general of institutes of consecrated life, bishops and cardinals — not only those accused of sexual abuse of minors, but also those who cooperate(d) in “covering it up”. Therefore, concrete steps toward responsibility and accountability have been radically implemented.

Yet another step taken leading toward greater transparency took place in December 2019 when Pope Francis abolished the “papal secret” that previously covered cases of the sexual abuse of minors. This allows clearer and easier collaboration to take place between ecclesiastical and civil authorities than had previously been the case. Finally, the famous Vademecum that had been developed was published in July 2020. This document was a direct request brought to the February 2019 Meeting, and had been indicated early on in the Meeting by Pope Francis as one of the Meeting’s first objectives. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith compiled it. Although not containing anything new, it is a well-presented document that presents in an orderly manner and clearly explains what every bishop or other person in authority needs to know and what they need to do in different situations. It is an extremely necessary tool, even though it did not receive a lot of attention when it was published. It was, however, a key suggestion requested by the participants in the 2019 Meeting, and it was accomplished.

Even more recently, on the Solemnity of Pentecost 2021, Pope Francis promulgated a reform of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law. This portion of Canon Law contains a summary of the Penal Sanctions in the Church. The new version rewords and reorganizes the previous version in such a way that the new norms established throughout the years dealing with the sexual abuse of minors and other issues are now contained in a well-organized way in the Code of Canon Law. Prior to this date, the legislation remained “scattered” throughout a whole series of documents and other types of interventions.

It can now be confirmed beyond a doubt that all the things we expected from the Pope and the Holy See in the aftermath of the 2019 Meeting have been accomplished.

But something else can be added. In this same period, in November 2020 to be exact, the voluminous “McCarrick Report” was published by the Vatican Secretariat of State. Ordered by Pope Francis himself, this investigation revealed the details regarding the grievous scandal that rocked the Church in the United States and throughout the world, and how it was possible that someone guilty of such abuse could have climbed to the heights of ecclesiastical responsibility as the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, DC. The publication of this report can also be considered a painful, but very courageous, step in the direction toward transparency and demonstrates the desire to account for crimes and to own responsibility even at the highest levels of the Church.

Thus, we are before an enormous, difficult and painful problem, that touches the Church’s very credibility. Although this is true, it is not at all true that nothing has been done or that nothing, or next to nothing, is being done. On the contrary, it can be unhesitatingly stated that the universal Church has faced and is facing the problem, that it has taken necessary steps to establish norms, procedures and laws to deal with it correctly.

The next steps forward: from norms to practice

Of course, this does not mean that everything has been done, because as we know, it is one thing to establish norms or create a framework, and quite another to change the situation, by enforcing them. The upcoming September Conference of the Church in Central and Eastern Europe in Warsaw on the protection of minors and vulnerable persons is, in fact, taking this direction. Every geographic and ecclesiastical area possessing certain commonalities from the historical and cultural point of view need to reflect on where they are and need to identify what needs to be done concretely to effectively enforce the guidelines of the universal Church at the local level.

This has been done in other geographic regions. For example, a large conference for Latin America was held in Mexico about a year ago. The pandemic interrupted many other plans and caused delays. However, conferences are being planned, or have already taken place, on various continents, conferences similar to that planned for the countries making up Central and Eastern Europe. These regional meetings are also necessary steps on the common journey of the universal Church applied specifically to geographical, cultural and ecclesial regions.

To conclude, much has been done at the general and normative levels, in addition to gaining concrete experience. In some areas more has been done, and in other areas, less. Meetings are necessary for the circulation of knowledge and insight into the concrete and efficacious ways to face the problem. We are on a journey and we will remain on the journey. But the road on which it is necessary to move quickly and without uncertainties is now substantially and sufficiently delineated. This road must be taken to heal suffering, apply justice, prevent future abuse, restore trust and credibility within the ecclesial community and in the Church’s mission for the good of the world.

Father Federico Lombardi, sj